Michelet was the first modern historian to undertake to fill in the complete picture of the past, including science, art, literature, philosophy, architecture, costume and social habits, along with politics, war, religion, economics and law; and he makes you feel that he has actually been back to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Reformation and returned with reactions as vivid as if he were dealing with contemporary events. —Edmund Wilson, “Michelet,” The New Republic, 31 August 1932

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ne of the great Romantic historians, Jules Michelet (1798-1874) served as model and inspiration for the founders of the influential Annales school in twentieth-century France. As a result, he has had a more substantial impact on modern historiography than most of his contemporaries—than Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), for example, or Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1800-1859) or Lamartine (1790-1869). Before broaching the question of awareness of his work in the nineteenth-century English-speaking world —  the primary purpose of this short essay — it will not be out of place to convey to those twenty-first century anglophone readers who are unfamiliar with his writing a sense of how the French historian conceived the character and shape of human history and envisaged how citizens’ awareness and understanding of history can contribute to human progress and wellbeing.

Michelet was an extremely self-conscious historian. From the beginning to the end of his career he never ceased to reflect on history and historiography—what history writing had been in the past; what it could and should be in his own modern age; how it should respond to the political, social and cultural developments that had enabled the popular masses to come into their own, finally, as citizens of democratic nation-states; what structure and meaning might be discerned in history; and how, through a “comprehensive resurrection of the past” (“résurrection intégrale du passé” — Lettres inédites (1841-1871), 233), the historian might contribute to the self-understanding, and hence to the emancipation and empowerment, of all humanity, of the various particular peoples composing it, and of the individual human being (starting with himself) — inasmuch as the individual is part of a larger community, a product both of his nation’s history and, beyond that, of the entire history of humanity. “I would like to explain to myself, as a modern man, my own birth,” the 35-year-old professor told his young audience at the Sorbonne in 1834, for, as he wrote later to a friend, the journalist and literary scholar Eugène Noël, “I am France” (“Je suis la France”). Michelet devoted an impressive number of prefaces and essays to his reflection on those issues.

One of his earliest works, an Introduction à l’hisoire universelle (1831), outlines a very different view of World History from the traditional religious view represented, for instance, by Bossuet’s celebrated Discours sur l’histoire universelle of 1681, even if the notion of Divine Providence is not completely obliterated and the perspective remains largely, though not exclusively, eurocentric. In the Preface to the 1869 edition of History of France, “My first pages after the July Revolution, written on the burning cobblestones, were a vision of the world, of Universal History, as freedom’s struggle, its ever-repeated victory over the world of determinism.”

Written in the immediate aftermath of the successful July Revolution of 1830, this first essay presents in extraordinarily succinct and vivid form the basic dialectical structure and the richly metaphorical substance of Michelet’s vision of history. In it the historian traces the world-historical process by which, from ancient times to the present, through immense, often violent and destructive struggles, periods of crisis, and clashes of cultures, the modern world was created, i.e. men and women gradually—often by the most devious routes—achieved ever greater freedom from the oppression of the strong and of material nature itself. The historian contributes to this process both by delving into the depths of the forgotten past and offering insight into hidden forces, fears, and impulses which determine the lives of the members of a community but of which they have hitherto been unaware, and of which traditional political or dynastic historiography tells nothing, and thus disclosing the pattern and direction of the history of humanity. Michelet represents this process as the progressive displacement of “fatality” by “freedom,” of “matter” by “spirit,” of myth by history, and, somewhat more problematically, of the female principle, that is to say, in his terms, of material necessity and the endlessly repeated cycle of birth and death, by the ever-expanding power of reason, law, and scientific understanding. History, it could be said, liberates man from the past, inasmuch as the past is like the womb in which the preconscious infant is nurtured, the breast at which he is fed and from which he must detach himself in order to become a free, active and independent individual in charge of his own destiny. What results from the triumph of the male principle, Michelet emphasizes, is not a new tyranny of men over women, or of spirit over nature, but a “penetration” of the female by the male principle, the liberation of woman herself from the tyranny of her own bodily nature, and the humanisation of nature, its transformation from a blind and indifferent determinism into an ally and partner of “spirit.” Within this world history is embedded the history of France, which is portrayed as at once emblematic and exemplary. Whence the claim at the end of the essay that France is the nation that, after the glorious July Revolution of 1830, is destined to lead all humanity on the next stage of its journey to ever greater freedom and dominion over nature and fate. Michelet adhered to this program throughout all his writing, including even the remarkable and best-selling natural histories, to which he turned in his later years, after being removed in 1852, on political grounds, from his positions at the Collège de France and the National Archives.

Though twice as long as the Introduction itself, the extensive “Notes and Clarifications” appended to it, some of which amount to virtual essays in their own right (an effect of Michelet’s fascination with German scholarship?), give a sense of the range of Michelet’s interests and reading (on Michelet’s wide reading, see also the “Journal de mes lectures,” 301-31). As befitted his conception of history, he was not content simply to adapt and revise traditional historical narratives, usually based on political or dynastic chronologies. He knew that in order to write the totally new kind of history he envisaged, a history embracing all aspects of people’s lives, he would have to exploit a wide range of sources: archival documents, to which, as Director of the Historical Section of the National Archives, he had ready access until 1852; scholarly works in various languages from the Renaissance to his own time, including quite recent books on the Orient and editions of ancient Oriental literature; the writings of the Ancients (Greek and Latin); the great texts of medieval and modern European literature from Dante to Goethe and Byron; popular literature and folk tales; works of art and architecture; studies of religion, law, and medicine; and rules and precepts for the conduct of daily life.

In his inaugural lecture or “Opening Address” as Professor of History, on 9 January 1834, to a packed auditorium at the Sorbonne, on his temporarily replacing Guizot, who had been appointed Minister of Education in the new government of Louis-Philippe, Michelet again argues for the importance of the study of history, impressing on his young audience that the present is the product of the past, which is always alive within it, that every human being carries an immense past within himself (Michelet was addressing an almost exclusively male audience) of which he often has little or no consciousness, and that it is the task of the historian to bring that unconscious foundation of the living individual to the light of consciousness. This is at one and the same time an act of piety toward those past generations on whose sufferings and sacrifices the present has been built and a step forward in the emancipation of the present generation. “Que ce soit là ma part dans l’avenir, d’avoir, non pas atteint, mais marqué le but de l’histoire, de l’avoir nommée d’un nom que personne n’avait dit.Thierry y voyait une narration et M. Guizot une analyse. Je l’ai nommée résurrection, et ce nom lui restera." (1846; Paris: Flammarion, 1974, p. 73.)

Taking up, in even more concentrated form, the broad outlines of the Introduction to World History, but focusing on one particular period of crisis and transition in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (developed more fully shortly afterwards in volume III [1837] of the Histoire de France), the young lecturer called on his audience to learn from history that humanity’s grand progressive movement has often been realised through crises so severe and disorienting that many believed the end of the world was imminent. In fact, what the people of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were living through was the end of the Middle Ages, the prelude to a new and brighter time for all humanity. In a similar way, the students were doubtless expected to understand the turmoil of the end of the Ancien Régime, the Revolution, and the Restoration, which they were living through, as the prelude to a new and better future. Informed by history, the young should therefore have confidence in the essentially progressive character of the historical process, through times of seemingly catastrophic upheavals and disasters, and they should work to promote that process, never yielding to passivity or despair. The lecture was received by its young audience with enthusiastic and prolonged applause.

The beautiful Preface Michelet wrote for a new edition of his complete Histoire de France in 1869, presents a retrospective account of how the historian’s understanding of French history evolved in the course of writing the successive volumes of that monumental work, together with his view of the goals of historical writing, the methods by which those goals can be attained, and his own evolving relation, as its historian, to the object of his research and writing. Expressed in different texts over almost four decades, Michelet’s reflections on history, taken together, constitute a powerful statement of a great historian’s vision of history and of the importance, for the present, of investigating, exhuming, and understanding the past in all its richness and complexity.


After falling into disfavour and being regarded with disdain as “literary” by the positivist historians who followed him in the later nineteenth century, Michelet was rediscovered and rehabilitated in the early twentieth century by the leading members of the Annales school, notably Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, the school’s founders, and Fernand Braudel, one of its most prominent and widely admired later leaders. Febvre refers frequently to Michelet in his own work and from December 1942 to April 1943, in the darkest days of the German occupation of France, he devoted an entire lecture course at the Collège de France to his nineteenth-century predecessor’s account of the Renaissance, with the aim perhaps of recalling Michelet’s view of history as progressing through crises and seeming setbacks. This was followed by another course, in 1943-1944, dedicated to Michelet as a renovator of history. Febvre also brought out a little volume on Michelet soon after the end of the War: Michelet 1798-1874 (Geneva: Éditions des Trois Collines, 1946), in which he defended Michelet as “the founding model” of modern French historiography and took issue with those who still held that, however talented he may have been as a writer, “as a historian, he wasn’t so great.” In 1992, over three decades after Febvre’s death, his 1942-1943 lectures, edited by Fernand Braudel, were published by Flammarion as Michelet et la Renaissance. In Febvre’s words, “The historical method of the Michelet of 1840 can be defined in two words: it is totalizing and it is synthesizing” (“elle est totalitaire et elle est synthétique”).

It is totalizing because it does not assign to the historian the task of recalling and reviving any one of the multiple activities in which human beings are engaged — political activity, for example, or the law, or religion. All things human matter to the historian, everything men create or do is the object of history […]: political constitutions, churches, religions or philosophies, artistic or literary productions, economic activities, scientific discoveries. It is synthesizing because it is not enough for the historian to study political history, or the history of law, or the history of art separately. […] Everything to do with human beings must be studied together. For there is no single work of men that does not have an impact on all the others both severally and taken together. [108]

This view of Michelet’s significance was echoed by the medievalist Jacques Le Goff, a younger member of the Annales school. Michelet, Le Goff claimed, is “the father of the new history, of a total history that aims to grasp the past in all its density” (“le père de l’histoire nouvelle, de l’histoire totale qui veut saisir le passé dans toute son épaisseur”). According to Le Goff, Michelet’s vision of a total history of the Middle Ages—a history that would emerge from “all possible documents, laws and art, charters and poems, the soil and libraries, a history that would exploit the entire arsenal of the human sciences (not available to Michelet but called for by his method) and that would resuscitate not ghosts but real people of flesh and also of intellect and feeling”—remains a challenge to modern-day medievalists, many of whom are still caught up in narrow issues of erudition and do not venture beyond their special fields of research (IV, 60). Marc Bloch was somewhat more circumspect than his colleague Febvre: “Michelet is a seductive, but sometimes dangerous model,” he warned (“Michelet est un maître séduisant, mais parfois dangereux”). Nevertheless, Michelet and Fustel de Coulanges were, for him too, “our great forebears,” who “taught us to recognize that the object of history is, by its nature, man” (The Historian’s Craft 25, and review of Febvre, 354).

For his part, Fernand Braudel saluted Michelet in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France on 1 December 1950, as “the greatest of all” the nineteenth-century historians—greater even than Ranke or Burckhardt—in recognition of “so many flashes of insight and inspired premonitions” (“tant d’éclairs et de prémonitions géniales,” 19).Four years later the prestigious Paris publishing house of Les Éditions du Seuil brought out Michelet par lui-même, a selection of texts with commentaries by the late Roland Barthes. This penetrating and innovative study by the leading avant-garde French literary critic of the second half of the twentieth century has now acquired classic status and continues to be reprinted by the publisher. In it Barthes takes up Febvre’s theme of Michelet as the pioneer of total history. The historian’s much derided “subjectivity,” he argues, was in fact “the earliest form of an insistence on totality” and the nineteenth-century Romantic turns out to have been “at once a sociologist, an ethnologist, a psychoanalyst, and a social historian. Even if he often interpreted them symbolically, as a means of establishing interconnections among them, the objects of Michelet’s interest—climatic and geographical conditions, popular mentalities, eating habits, clothing, health and disease, arts and technologies, the historian’s relation to the objects of his study — have indeed come to occupy a central place in modern historical research.

Reflecting the revived interest in Michelet among French historians, new editions of two of his major works, the Histoire de France and the Histoire de la Révolution Française, have been published in the last half-century—the former in several multi-volume editions, with various publishers, between 1964 and 2009, as well as in a cheap popular paperback abridgement in 1963, the latter in two volumes of over 1500 pages each in Gallimard’s elegant Bibliothèque de la Pléaide collection in 1952, in a 6-volume edition in 1967, a 7-volume edition in 1974, a 9-volume edition in 1979, as well as in several abridgements, including one in the popular Livre de Poche series on the eve of the bicentenary of the Revolution. In addition, many individual works, such as the Mémoires de Luther, the Histoire romaine, Le Peuple, La Sorcière, La Femme, Légendes démocratiques du Nord, Le Procès des Templiers and the inevitable Jeanne d’Arc, not to mention the natural history writings of the historian’s later years, have been republished in the last half-century, while hitherto private writings and unpublished lectures have also been edited and made available to contemporary scholars: the early diaries (Écrits de jeunesse, 1959); the astounding Journal to which Michelet confided both his most intimate thoughts and fantasies and his reflections on history and plans for historical writing (4 vols., 1959-1976); the Correspondance générale (12 vols., 1994-2001); the lectures delivered at the École Normale (1987); and the courses taught at the Collège de France from 1838 to 1851 (2 vols., 1995). Between 1971 and 1987 the publishing house of Flammarion put out Paul Viallaneix’s magisterial 21-volume edition of Michelet’s Oeuvres complètes.


In Michelet’s own lifetime, almost all his works appeared in English translation, both in Great Britain and in the United States, usually soon after their publication in French, and these translations often went through several editions or reprints. The natural history books that the historian began to produce in collaboration with his second wife, Athénaïs Mialaret, after he had been dismissed, on refusing to take the oath of allegiance to Napoleon III, from his positions at the Collège de France and the National Archives, proved especially popular in the English-speaking world. The regular historical writings were by no means neglected, however. While John Stuart Mill, who admired and corresponded (indirectly) with Michelet, expressed regret in 1840 that the French historian, “a writer of great and original views,” was “very little known among us,” an English translation (by Alonzo Potter, a highly respected, liberally minded American Episcopal Bishop, at that time Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Union College) of the early Précis de l’histoire moderne (1829) was published in 1843 as Modern History by Harper and Sons in New York and adopted for use in schools and colleges while two different translations (one by Walter K. Kelly, the other by G.H. Smith) of the first two volumes (1833) of the Histoire de France were published simultaneously in the mid-1840s by Chapman and Hall and by Whittaker in London and by Appleton in New York. The English translation, by C. Cocks, Professor of English at the Collège Royale and translator of many of Michelet’s works, of the first four books of the Histoire de la Révolution Française, went through at least five editions between its first publication in 1847-48 and the end of the century. 1847 also saw the publication of an English translation, by no less a writer than William Hazlitt, of the less well known or remembered Histoire de la république romaine (1831). Mill certainly did his bit to put Michelet in the public eye. He himself wrote a long, extremely favourable review of the Histoire de France for the influential Edinburgh Review in 1844; he arranged for his “young friend,” George Henry Lewes, the long-time partner of the novelist George Eliot and a great admirer of Michelet, whose work he helped to have translated into English, to meet personally with the historian in Paris; and he encouraged Lewes to write an article on the contemporary French historians—including Michelet, “the historian par excellence” in Lewes’ words—in the British and Foreign Review, also in 1844. “Michelet’s books,” Mill wrote, “are not for those who dislike to think or explore for themselves,” they are “not books to save a reader the trouble of thinking, but to make him boil over with thought. Their effect on the mind is not acquiescence, but stir and ferment” (Works XXX, 231).

Many translations of Michelet’s writings on social history, all bearing the stamp of his broad historical range and liberal, progressivist ideology, were also published in those mid-century years, often going through multiple editions or reprints. Des Jésuites (1843), written in collaboration with Edgar Quinet, first appeared as The Jesuits in 1845, with three further translations in 1846, one of which, by Charles Cocks, had seen four editions by 1848. Du Prêtre, de la femme, de la famille (1845) — in which Michelet argues in favour of the triumph in the course of history of the free, progressive, and rational male principle over the enslavement to fatality and imprisonment in the blind and inescapable “law” of nature represented by the domination of the female principle and the primacy of physical reproduction (a thesis developed also in many of the historian’s later natural history writings) — appeared in another translation by Cocks as Priests, Women and Families with Longman’s in London, and also in Philadelphia, in the same year (1845) as its original publication in France. Seventeen further editions of this work, including new translations, came out in 1846. An English translation of Le Peuple (1846) was published, also in the same year as the original French text (1846), again with Longman’s in a translation by Cocks, which advanced quickly to a third, “cheap” edition. Yet another translation of this work, by G.H. Smith, appeared in 1846, put out by Whittaker in London and by Appleton in New York and Philadelphia. The same year, 1846, also saw the publication by David Bogue in London, of The Life of Luther, a translation of La Vie de Luther (original French also 1846) by the eminent essayist William Hazlitt, with a second translation by G.H. Smith appearing the same year with Whittaker, also in London. Curiously, Légendes démocratiques du Nord (1854), written under the influence of Herder, Grimm and Walter Scott, and presenting folk literature as a primitive form of history, appears not to have been translated into English. On the other hand, several other essayistic writings, appealing to a broad general public, since the historian, fired from his official positions in 1852, had to be thinking of earning money from his writing, appeared sometimes fairly promptly in English translation, sometimes a decade or so later. L’Amour published by Hachette in 1858, appeared in English translation the following year; The Sorceress, a translation of La Sorcière (1862), a study of medieval witchcraft, also came out a year after the French original; La Femme (published by Hachette in 1860) was brought out in English (in London by S. Low & Son and in New York by Carleton) in 1870; The Bible of Humanity, a translation of La Bible de l’Humanité (1864) apppeared in 1877.


By the mid 1850s, Michelet's reputation as a historian was well established in France; his work up to that time had also become largely accessible in the English-speaking world, thanks to numerous translations of it. With the publication of L'Oiseau in 1856, however, Michelet inaugurated a new phase of his career. In the course of the next decade he brought out a series of natural history books that turned out to be among the most successful commercially of his career as a writer. L'Oiseau, originally published in a popular format called "The Railway Traveller's Library," went through ten editions in eleven years and sold 33,000 copies, a remarkable figure at the time. L'Insecte went on sale in 1857 with a first printing of 8,000; there were six editions during Michelet's lifetime and by the time of his death in 1874 the book had sold 28,000 copies, while parts had been reprinted in the feuilleton pages of the newspaper La Presse. La Mer (1861), with a first print run of 24,000 copies, and La Montagne (1868), with seven printings in the first year of publication, were also best-sellers, far surpassing the Histoire de France. All four works were also widely translated into English, The Sea appeared in the same year as the original French and went through four reprintings between 1861 and 1883. There were seven reprintings of the English translation of L’Oiseau (The Bird) between 1868 and 1879. The Mountain came out in English translation in 1872, two years before the author’s death. Three years later, in 1875, Thomas Nelson brought out The Insect, with over 100 illustrations by the French artist Hector Giacomelli, who had also illustrated The Bird.

There are several obvious explanations for Michelet's turn to natural history in the 1850s. The first — put forward by the historian himself — is no doubt the catastrophe of 1848, from which History, as Michelet viewed it, emerged wounded and bleeding. The historian of the nation, who had always argued for the unity of the people and had refused to accept that class struggle was essential to the movement of history (in Michelet's vision, each individual nation is the product of a process of self-generation, an internal evolution) found the relevance of his view diminished as his beloved peuple was torn by a violent, cruel, and unforgiving class war. The very order of history, its progress toward ever greater freedom and the full realization of Humanity (the creation, in the same optimistic vision, of all the peoples and nations, each contributing a different force or spiritual principle) seemed to be contradicted by these events, the outcome of which, the restoration of "order" under Napoleon III, could only be seen by Michelet as a disastrous regression. On his own admission, he was "sick at heart" and in fact it was at this time that he began to suffer from various physical ailments, which Michelet scholars generally consider of psychosomatic origin. It was in "one of my darkest hours," as he himself declared in the first of the natural history books, that he sought, as a refuge from "the thoughts of the time, the alibi of nature."

The year 1848 was also a personal disaster for the fifty-year-old professor, who had risen from the humble ranks of the artisan class to a brilliant position as professor at the Collège de France. After the collapse of the Revolution, he had been accused of turning his lecture course at the Collège into a focus of resistance to the regime of President Louis Bonaparte. He had been first suspended and then, after Bonaparte became emperor, expelled from the Collège by special imperial decree, along with his friends Edgar Quinet and Adam Mickiewicz. In June 1852, when he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Emperor, he had also been dismissed from his position as director of the National Archives. Michelet never held another public position, and it was soon obvious that he and his young second wife were going to be increasingly dependent on the royalties from his books to support themselves. The Histoire de France was a succès de prestige, but not a best-seller . One of the appeals of natural history may well have been, therefore, its potential for selling in large quantities and generating much needed income. The historian's son-in-law and fellow-historian, Alfred Dumesnil, noted that Michelet saw in natural history "une pépinière de volumes" and Madame – i.e. Athénaïs Mialaret, his second wife and collaborator on the natural history writings — "une nouvelle California." Athénaïs was herself passionately interested in natural history and published works of her own, under her own name: Nature, or the Poetry of Earth and Sea, written for the English market and published by Thomas Nelson in 1872, and Les Chats, published posthumously by Flammarion in Paris in 1904.

Michelet’s writings on natural history are hardly read now, save by Michelet specialists or literary scholars. Understandably perhaps. The fate of any work of science, according to the historian's older contemporary, the celebrated naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, is to be made "antiquated" and "unreadable" by the progress of science itself. Michelet's natural history writing, in addition, is so idiosyncratic and personal, and at the same time so steeped in the ancient tradition of "mother" nature — nature as woman8 — that, unlike the somewhat earlier works of Humboldt himself, for instance, which can still be consulted by natural scientists for the original data they contain, Michelet's works can now be read only for their extraordinary imaginative power and poetic language, though these are often mixed, it is only fair to say, as Buffon's or Humboldt's are not, with a good deal of sentimentality. While they also provide insight into the intellectual and affective roots of certain still prevalent ideas about nature and, in particular, into the roots of the modern ecological movement, the greatest interest of these four natural history books probably lies in the clarity with which they lay bare the essential ideas — perhaps obsessions is a more accurate term — of one of the greatest and surely the most imaginative of modern historians. As Linda Orr observed twenty years ago, Michelet's imaginaire — the basic elements and structures of his imagination — is probably more directly visible here than in any of his properly historical writings.

While the rediscovery of Michelet by modern French historians has led to the publication of many new editions of his writings over the last half-century in France, there has been, in contrast, a marked decline in English-language publications of his work since 1900. To the degree that he figures at all in the English historiographical landscape, he is usually thought of, above all, as an excessively literary and “imaginative” historian, strongly nationalist and anglophobic, who claimed a privileged place for his country in world history. Michelet, however, rejected the view that he was essentially a “literary” and “imaginative” writer. Even in the nineteenth century the later volumes of the Histoire de France aroused far less interest than the earlier ones on the Middle Ages, and where they were discussed they were subject to harsh criticism, provoked partly no doubt by the increasingly strident anti-English strain in those later volumes and partly by a tone of unconcealed political and moral engagement in them that ran counter to the “neutrality” required by the positivist ideal of a politically more conservative generation. By 1911, the author of the article on Michelet in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica noted that Michelet of late had “not received much attention from critics and monographers.” His own judgment was severe. “The Introduction à l’histoire universelle,” he wrote “showed a different style” from that of the earlier Précis de l’histoire moderne, “exhibiting no doubt the idiosyncracy and literary power of the writer to greater advantage but also displaying the peculiar visionary qualities which made him the most stimulating, but the most untrustworthy (not in facts, which he never consciously falsifies, but in suggestion) of all historians.” As for his Histoire de la Révolution, “in actual picturesqueness as well as in general veracity of picture, the book cannot approach Carlyle’s, while as a mere chronicle of events it is inferior to half a dozen prosaic histories older and younger than itself” (CVIII, 369-70).

Thanks to Edmund Wilson’s widely read and now classic To the Finland Station (1940), Michelet did make a brilliant but brief reappearance on the Anglo-American literary and intellectual scene in the mid-twentieth century. Unusually — for, as Wilson put it himself in the early 1930s, “Michelet’s ‘History of France’ was popular with our grandfathers, but people seem rarely to read it today” — Wilson and his mother had read Michelet together when he was a young man, and he relates that he carried the memory of the chapters on Philip the Bold with him while serving in Eastern France in World War I. Later he came to admire Michelet as a historian to whom the writing of history had been a way of acting on history, and it was as a critic of the decline of the revolutionary tradition and an advocate of “the idea that society can be remade by men in accord with human aspiration” that he published a short laudatory article on Michelet in the old, progressive New Republic in 1932 and turned again to the nineteenth-century French historian for the first five chapters of To the Finland Station, his comprehensive account of the revolutionary idea from the early nineteenth century to the October Revolution (see also Dabney 14). “If Michelet is no longer read,” he asserted, referring to an article written in France in 1898, on the eve of the Michelet centenary, it is

because people no longer understand him. […] He commits for the skeptical young men of the end of the century the supreme sin of being an apostle, a man of passionate feeling and conviction. Michelet created the religion of the Revolution and the Revolution is not popular today, when the Academicians put it in its place, when persons who would have been nothing without it veil their faces at the thought of the Jacobin terror, when even those who have nothing against it manage to patronize it. [37]

In addition to Michelet’s fervent engagement with history, Wilson also emphasized his originality as a historian, “fusing disparate materials, […] indicating the interrelations between the different forms of human activity […] as if he were braiding a rope. […] Yet the plaiting of a rope is too coarse an image. No image except that of life itself can convey the penetrating intelligence with which, in the volumes on Louis XIV, for example, Michelet interrelates the intrigues of the court, the subjects of Molière’s comedies and the economic condition of France” (18, 20).

Wilson’s enthusiastic endorsement of Michelet was unusual, however, if not unique, and as he was himself a man of letters—essayist, critic, and novelist (and socialist at the time to boot)—rather than a professional historian, it appears to have done little to enhance awareness of or interest in Michelet among practising historians in the English-speaking world.

In 1967, however, as part of a series devoted to pre-twentieth century classics of historiography, a much abridged version of the 1848 translation of the History of the French Revolution was put out by the University of Chicago Press. Based on the 1848 translation by Charles Cocks, the Professor of English at the Collège Royal in Paris, and updated by the editor, Stanford Professor Gordon Wright, this edition contained only the Introduction and the first three of the twenty-one books of the original, ending on the account of the Fête de la Fédération (14 July 1790). Cocks’s 1848 translation, which included as much of the text as had been published in France at the time (publication of the entire work in French was not completed until 1853), had also included Book IV. The last edition to be reviewed and revised by Michelet himself appeared in 1869. It is not clear, however, what impact, if any, this publication had, and an attempt in 1972 by the Kolokol Press of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, to publish the complete History of the French Revolution in a new translation seems to have faltered after the appearance of three non-consecutive volumes (4, 6, and 7). The University of Illinois Press brought out a translation of Le Peuple in 1973. Increasing attention to women’s history also sparked a revival of interest in La Sorcière (The Witch), and 1987 saw the publication in New York of Roland Barthes’ book on Michelet in a translation by the gifted poet and essayist Richard Howard. It seems highly likely, however, that the appearance of Howard’s translation had more to do with the reputation of Barthes among literary scholars than with interest in Michelet among historians. There have been twentieth-and even twenty-first century reprints of the English translations of essayistic writings such as L’Amour, and a fair number of studies in English of Michelet and his work, but these have also mostly been by literary scholars and historians studying the nineteenth century, rather than followers of Michelet’s aims or methods. Michelet, it would seem, now cuts a fairly small figure, compared even with Ranke or Burckhardt, on the historiographical horizon of the English-speaking world.


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